The last page of every issue of Edible San Francisco contains this anonymous quotation: "Despite its artistic pretensions and its many accomplishments, humankind owes its existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains." One could even go so far and say that most life — plants, birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals — also owes its existence to this thin layer of topsoil. Unfortunately, humanity has been taking topsoil for granted, and paying the price in many ways, from regional famines to aquatic dead zones to a global loss of biodiversity.
A film like "Dirt!" is thus quite timely.* Over the course of 90 minutes, the film follows the classic structure of environmental documentaries: exposition followed by outrage, gloom, and doom, capped with an uplifting conclusion. It alternates between archival footage, cute cartoons about dirt, and interviews with luminaries like Vandana Shiva, Nobel Laureate Wangaari Mathai, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, and Andy Lipkis of Tree People. "Dirt!" attempts to explain humanity's connection to dirt: how we are mistreating it, how we can restore it, and how it can restore us. This last point is illustrated by a visit to a church in Chimayo, New Mexico, where the dirt is believed to have healing powers, and to a prison in New York, where a small garden provides a place for some inmates to learn landscaping skills while also learning about self-control and gaining self-esteem.
Although it is a little short on the science of dirt and a little long on the gloom and doom (did we really need to see 10 minutes of mining explosions?), in the end the film is inspiring and made me want to work in my tiny garden, tend my composting worms, and appreciate this living thing that keeps us all alive.
Watch for screenings of this independent film in your area. And if you're putting together a food or farming film festival, this would be a fantastic addition to the program.
*"Dirt!" should not be confused with "In Good Heart: Soil and the Mystery of Fertility," a film by Deborah Koons Garcia that is currently in production, with a release target of Spring 2010. Over at Grist, Tom Philpott interviewed Koons Garcia about her project during Slow Food Nation in 2008.